Decoding Corruption Through Behavioural Sciences

Understanding the intricate web of corruption requires delving into the realm of behavioral sciences, as it provides invaluable insights into the underlying motivations and dynamics driving this behavior.

July 20, 2023

Corruption as a phenomenon is not alien to societies around the world. It is no secret that acts of corruption are deeply entrenched at all levels and amongst all classes in our county too. Fundamentally, it is an abuse of power entrusted to an individual for personal gain that has political, social, environmental, and economic costs.

Corruption is a transnational crime that transcends geographical boundaries and is recognized through multiple international conventions such as United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC), the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention, and legal instruments notably the Prevention of Corruption Act, of 1988. It poses a multifaceted challenge that has a detrimental effect on societies around the globe. This necessitates answering the prolonged question of why people engage in corrupt behavior by identifying underlying psychological factors and processes that contribute towards its persistence and growth. Since corruption is a multi-faceted phenomenon, it’s not always possible to fit it within the ambit of personnel gain due to abuse of power. Bribery, kickback, nepotism, and embezzlement are some of the prevalent forms of corruption that are systematically rooted and institutionalized. The Covid-19 pandemic furthered the issue of corruption when the government didn’t have enough finances to take quick measures.

Given the importance of addressing the issue of corruption as an international crisis, adopting a traditional economic approach is insufficient to yield a comprehensive understanding of the subject. A behavioral account implies that even though the decision to engage in corrupt behavior may be deliberate, humans as social agents are affected by other factors like norms, perceptions, prevalent practices, the efficacy of sanctions, and moral recognitions.

There is no denying the fact that individuals seek their self-interest. People with high social status are more prone to indulge in corrupt behavior as control over resources provides more opportunities for personal gain. Therefore, it is pertinent to note that corruption predominantly occurs in instances where there is an imbalance of power, which is exploited for personnel benefits. In countries with weak political institutions, citizens support corruption as they expect to receive benefits from corrupt leaders. Thus, they adhere to the corrupt behavior of people in authority when it also proves to be advantageous to them personally. However, such corrupt practices are downplayed through moral disengagements, employing various cognitive mechanisms in an attempt at rationalization and justification.

Overriding one’s moral compass in the name of a necessity makes it easier to be engaged in unethical or criminal behavior.  Even though these corrupt actors are naturally inclined towards opportunities for personal gain, they nonetheless wish to perceive themselves as morally upright. Often influenced by one’s own biases and prejudices, distorting perception in a bounded ethicality facilitates corrupt acts without acknowledging their ethical ramifications.

On the other hand, when hierarchies are construed systematically, status inequalities may compel individuals to overlook moral norms and values for their self-interest. One’s interest may be seen to advance by corrupt practices that might be motivated by a desire for power or other incentives. People perceive corruption as a necessary evil, which indicates the steady deterioration of ethical standards and its acceptance within a given social setting. Over time, this normalization desensitizes moral consequences and increases the likelihood of corruption. This exemplifies how corrupt behavior might be initiated internally but tends to progressively surface externally if not discouraged.


Like everything else, social norms and prevalent cultural factors also determine the possibility of engaging in corrupt activities. Indian administrative functioning is ingrained in red tapeism, also referred to as the culture of bureaucratic red tape which makes the administrative framework cumbersome. This enables officials to exploit their position for material gain in exchange for expediting the process or granting favors. Consequently, people with resources become more prone to bribe officials for an easy way out than be involved in intricate regulations and excessive bureaucratic procedures.


Perception of risk is what influences an individual’s propensity to behave corruptly. Like any other crime, corruption is also a risky behavior. In a risk-averse situation, behavior depends on what an individual might stand to lose or gain from it. However, when individuals are in dire need or perceive a need, their likelihood of taking a particular risk increases. Therefore, people in authority engage in corrupt activities because of the opportunities that are presented by the people who are in need.

Authority effects are another element that provides a breeding ground for corruption. Since it’s more prevalent amongst the higher strata, when seen to reap benefits without accountability and sanctions, it encourages others to follow the same path. Additionally, as true for all forms of behavior, peer effect adds fuel to the fire. When people see their peers engaging in corrupt activities, without any legal or social consequences, they are either naturally motivated or compelled to maintain their status by following the same path of corrupt practices. Peer pressure and conformity to group norms override ethical and moral considerations.


This growth of corruption can be explained using the social learning theory as humans replicate each other’s behavior. For instance, paying bribes for preferential treatment from government officials to expedite administrative functioning has become a social norm. When individuals’ corrupt behavior is positively reinforced by others, they model the same.


Corruption can also be viewed through the angle of the rational choice theory which implies that individuals engage in corrupt activities based on an analysis of the costs and benefits it entails. This involves a comparison of the possibility of gains against the consequences and risks to make a rational decision. It is essential for understanding the reasons behind the decision to engage in corrupt activities. If the probability of being caught is higher, the rational choice theory would suggest that the chances of an individual being engaged in corruption would be low. Other than observing others’ experiences, the likelihood of it increases when one might have gotten away with it in the past as it is a benchmark for predicting the future course of action

 If corruption is widely tolerated within society, the perceived risks are seen to be diminished. Thus, corrupt practices may rather be motivated by intuition than a rational decision. This begs the question, do the prevalent sanctions work in favor of combatting corruption or there is a need for transparency and accountability by strengthening anti-corruption laws?


It is an established idea that humans react to incentives and law is often used to model socially acceptable behavior. It uses sanctions and punishment to discourage behavior that is contrary to social desirability.  Punishment or sanctions impose negative consequences for people who engage in corrupt activities. However, the level of corruption is highly dependent on the efficiency of such anti-corruption measures in place at national, international, and especially, on a social level. The perceived risk of punishment might act as a deterrent if the risk of being apprehended is certain.


The level of certainty for accountability can only be increased if the investigative and enforcement framework is strengthened along with transparency and fairness. However, given the large-scale corruption in countries like India, merely punishment can’t help in mitigating corruption. The current scenario requires a balance of severity of punishment and preventive measures.


Having regulatory frameworks in place like corporate criminal liability for corporate entities, whistle-blowing mechanisms, transparency, and disclosure requirements in official settings must be given due weightage. This would strengthen principles of good governance and the rule of law, consequently, leading to more reporting and a higher rate of conviction for the crime of corruption.


Furthermore, initiatives like ethical training programs and imposing severe punishments guide people toward appropriate behavior by promoting a culture of ethical behavior. This tandem would result in a comprehensive approach toward reducing the possibility for corruption to thrive. The establishment of an ethical code of conduct and its strict compliance would act as a constant reminder to power holders. In case of breach or abuse, seeking material gain can be prevented if they are held accountable for their actions. The fear of power dynamics at play must be neutralized to avoid retaliation when the crime of corruption is reported against power figures. The temptation to give in to the easy way out can be mitigated for a positive behavioral change by a consistent flow of information pertaining to the costs of corruption.

Even though in white-collar crimes like corruption, ascertaining direct victim is rather difficult, its impact doesn’t go unnoticed in the long run. Rather than directly affecting an individual, it affects society in its entirety by impacting public resources, public services, and government institutions. It leads to a loss of revenue for the government and the creation of a parallel economy. The accumulated black money runs in a vicious circle that directly affects the national income. Personal gains might seem a preferable option at a given moment but an upsurge in corruption levels decreases the quality of life for the country.


 Additionally, when money in circulation is more than that shown in official papers, the efficiency of monetary and fiscal policies in place is undermined. Black money also increases illegal activities like fostering the drug culture or terrorism as they can be easily funded by the excessive and unaccounted money in the economy. The moral disengagement with corruption can be rebuilt by training in moral reasoning abilities. This will enable individuals to make principled decisions based on ethical considerations.


The consequences of engaging in corruption have been given the cold shoulder socially, legally, and politically, which has resulted in a culture of corruption. The sanctions and punishment imposed legally must be strengthened with the certainty of conviction if involved in corrupt activities to act as a deterrent. Values like integrity and honesty need to be instilled at a younger age to avoid such moral dilemmas irrespective of societal norms. This would in turn discourage rationalization and justification of corrupt behavior.

Author bio: Ananya Walia is a JIBS intern and fourth-year law student at Jindal Global Law School